Gary Doran

Cactus Bowl Preview: Breaking Down the Mountaineers


Here is our Motel 6 Cactus Bowl breakdown preview featuring the West Virginia Mountaineers and Arizona State Sun Devils. It’s still pretty much the same format, with the exception of the comparison of the rankings within the Pac-12 and Big-12 conferences. The comparisons are from both an offensive and a defensive standpoint. As always, we want to thank for their excellent compilation of statistics, along with the stats provided by the Pac-12 Conference.



What pops out in looking at the conference averages is that although most are fairly close between the two conferences, the fact is that in almost every one of the offensive categories in the table, the Big 12 has better average numbers compared to the Pac 12 averages.

ASU fares much better in the offensive categories listed above, except when the Devils enter the red zone, where they seem to struggle big time in trying to score touchdowns. West Virginia runs the ball better than it throws the ball, but sputters a bit in critical third down and red zone situations. ASU averages only 0.7 points more per game in scoring than the Mountaineers, but is three rankings higher in the Pac 12 conference than the Mountaineers in their conference.

On the defensive side, it seems to be a tale of two opposites with West Virginia and ASU. The Mountaineers rank in the upper half of their conference in most every defensive category, while the Devils are in the bottom half in their conference in most of the same categories. The two exceptions for the Devils is their first place ranking in run defense and fourth place ranking in limiting conference opponents to converting third downs into first downs.


Where ASU runs a fairly balanced run/pass mix in their games, the West Virginia offense runs the ball roughly 1.5 times for every one pass attempt. Overall, the two teams score at roughly the same pace with the Devils scoring an average of 2.25 points per drive compared to West Virginia’s 2.21 per drive. The difference can be seen in the running game where the Mountaineers racked up 97 running plays that went for ten yards plus, while the Devils ran for 65 plays of ten plus yards.  That’s almost 50-percent more explosive running plays.

Another interesting detail is that although the WVU passing game doesn’t seem to be as productive as the Devil’s, the Mountaineers are averaging slightly better in average yards per pass attempt and have to throw fewer passes per touchdown pass than the Devils. It does appear that the Devils protect the ball better in the passing game than the Mountaineers, where the Devils average throwing more than 50 passes for every interception while the Mountaineers throw less than 30 passes per interception.

The Mountaineers score red zone touchdowns at a higher percentage than the Devils. As far as scoring in the red zone, lets just say that ASU has attempted more field goals in conference play than any team in both conferences, that is not a good thing.


Two things that jump out from the West Virginia defense is its limiting opponents to less than a 32-percent conversion rate on third downs and allowing opponents to only score red zone touchdowns half their red zone opportunities. Another significant difference between the two defenses is the number of turnovers the Mountaineer defense has forced, (31-19). As a note, the Mountaineer defense has forced 14 turnovers in the last four games compared to nine forced by ASU in their last four games.

Situational Statistics


The two big differences between the Sun Devils and the Mountaineers in different game situations is that on third downs, the Devils have passed the ball seven out of ten times, while the Mountaineers ran it 44-percent of the time and passed the ball 56-percent. Now in the red zone, the Mountaineers ran the ball almost three out of four times, while the Devils were close to a 50/50 mix.

The Mountaineers pretty much have the same run/pass mix in their offense if they are ahead or behind in the game in running the ball roughly 56-percent of the time and passing it about 44-percent of the time in either situation. On the other hand, ASU passes the ball a bit more when they are ahead, (46%/54%), and have about a 50/50 mix when they are behind in their games.

Rushing Offense


Yards per carry by the Mountaineer run game sees a healthy 5.34 on first down, but then decreases with each succeeding down. The ASU run game also sees decent first and second down yards per carry, but then sees a drastic drop on third down. (As a note: the third down numbers could be affected by sacks taken on that down).

The rushing number that jumps out the most in the table above is the difference in the yards per carry for each team when they are behind in the game, where the Mountaineers ground game generates about a yard and a half more per carry than the Devils. The Mountaineers run game also gains about 25-percent more per carry that the Devils in the all-important red zone.  That’s why they average running it there three out of four times.

Passing Offense


ASU completion rate remains fairly consistent for each of the downs, whereas the Mountaineers passing game drops on the critical third down. The passing game for the Mountaineers drops below the 50-percent mark when they are behind in the game and in their opponents’ red zones. These are two critical areas and probably another reason why the Mountaineers run the ball over 70-percent of the time in red zone situations.

ASU’s pass completion rate drops a bit when they are trailing in the game, but their completion rate really dips to well below 50-percent in the red zone. What makes the poor completion rate in the red zone even worse is that they also pass the ball there over 50-percent of the time there.

Rush Defense


The Mountaineer run defense gave about the same yards per carry whether it’s first, second or third down. Actually, it goes up ever so slightly with each down, but nothing of significance. They also gave up just over a half-yard per carry more when they were behind compared to when they were ahead. The ASU run defense got a little generous on second down, but kept the yards per carry roughly the same whether the Devils were ahead or behind in the game. The fact that the Mountaineer run defense only gave up nine touchdowns the entire year is impressive, and additionally, there was only one rushing touchdown surrendered in the fourth quarter. By comparison, the ASU run defense gave up seven fourth quarter rushing touchdowns.

Pass Defense


The Mountaineers intercepted almost twice as many passes as the Devil defense. In fact, the Mountaineers picked off twelve passes in the second quarter alone, which amounted to about one interception for every ten pass attempts that quarter. The Mountaineer pass defense also gets a bit stingy when they are ahead in the game by the fact that they have allowed only 47-percent of opponents passes to be completed then.

As for the Devils pass defense, they appear to become very generous when teams pass against them on second down in allowing almost two out of every three pass attempts to be completed then. Another area the ASU pass defense struggled was in giving up red zone touchdown passes, where just over 37-percent of the pass attempts went for a touchdown, which was the highest percentage in the conference. The Devils surrendering of 4.91 yards per pass attempt was eleventh worst in the conference too.

What the Numbers Mean

It seems that ASU catches a bit of a break here in that its susceptible pass defense will be facing a team whose strong suit is not their passing game, but instead one that relies on its run game to reliably move the football.  Neutralizing opponents run games has been an area of strength for the Devils throughout most of 2015.

The crux of the game however seems to revolve around the ASU defense being able to stop the Mountaineers run game, thus making them needing to pass the ball.  The ASU pass defense works best against somewhat new non-elite passers.  The Mountaineers defense seems to be able to limit opponents from scoring touchdowns on the ground and does a decent job of limiting third down conversions. so they will cause some problems for the Devils offense. The game outcome may also come down to red zone production where the Devil offense has not been overly productive, and the Mountaineers defense has been somewhat stingy in relinquishing touchdowns from that area of the field.  It should be an interesting match up.

About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

Recommended for you

You must be logged in to post a comment Login